Cat Communication

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Cats will bite out of contentedness, playfulness, hunger, and other emotions. When a cat is happy, the cat may sometimes make a weak and harmless bite many owners refer to as a ‘nip’. Nipping appears to be akin to human kissing, and as such will be accompanied by other gestures of affection which (depending on the cat) include purring, tail erection, forward whiskers, rubbing of the face on nearby objects, arching of the back when patted, licking, etc.

A common misunderstanding is that all nipping is affectionate. When a cat becomes irritated or tired of being patted (e.g. being rubbed the wrong way, being irritated by static electricity, being sore, wanting to sleep, or simply wanting to be left alone), the cat may cease to nip and start to bite. The crucial difference is that the bite will be harder than a nip but will rarely be painful, and the cat will be displaying other signs of irritation at being patted (e.g. purring stopped, eyes wide open or expression hardened, tail no longer vertical (often thumping), body stiffened, whiskers and ears pointed backwards, paw swiping at the patting hand before or immediately after the bite).

Playful clawing and biting often happens when teasing a cat (especially a kitten) with fingers or a toy. The cat will lunge at the toy (or the fingers manipulating the toy) and possibly claw or bite. The clawing and biting is sometimes painful but rarely causes injury – either the cat has become overcome with excitement or, especially in the case of kittens, is still learning it can injure others. The cat’s intent is still one of affection and playfulness (forward-pointed whiskers, purring, other obvious appreciation of the game). It is recommended that if the human is bitten, he/she should emit a high-pitched noise suggesting pain and a firm “NO!”, followed by ignoring the cat for approximately ten minutes.

Aggressive biting is obviously intended to cause injury. Domesticated cats rarely bite with injurious intentions. However, should the cat be rabid or feel that a human (even a friend) might present a mortal danger for some reason, the cat may respond with aggression. An injured cat may bite defensively when approached. A female cat, when nursing new kittens, can also be aggressive when approached before the cat has introduced her kittens herself.[citation needed]


Main article: Purr

Purring is often understood as signifying happiness. However, one theory is that it is not a sign of showing relaxation or content, but rather an attempt at “friendship” or a signal of “specific intent”. The purring will sometimes be accompanied by a tremble of the tail. It can also be a sign of affection toward their owner and/or others around them. This is the most effective way a cat shows happiness, though the cat may also begin kneading when about to lie down and take a nap.

Though purring is generally the easiest way to assume a cat’s contentment, it is not always a sure indicator that the cat is happy. Cats also purr when they are ill, or during tense, traumatic, or painful moments. When suddenly and violently injured, even at moments near death, a cat will often purr. Recent theories surmise that purring is caused by the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins produce a sense of well-being and a decrease in pain.


A cat meowing

“Meow” redirects here. For other uses, see Meow (disambiguation).

The ‘meow’ (also spelled ‘miau’, ‘miow’, ‘mew’, ‘mrow’, or ‘miao’) is a vocalization used by kittens to signal a request to their mother. Adult cats do not normally meow to each other, and so the meowing to humans that domesticated cats exhibit is likely partly an extension of the use of this plaintive signal, this time to an unrelated caretaker of a different species. When communicating with humans, adult cats express variations of this tone to demand food or attention, register complaints and convey bewilderment. A slight alteration in tone, pace or punctuation changes the meaning.

While cats occasionally vocalize to one another with purrs, growls, and screams, they generally communicate with one another through body language. When preparing to fight an adversary or to frighten one away, cats can emit long, articulated meows. Most communications recognized as “meow” are specifically for human interaction.

Other noises

A cat hissing and arching its back to make itself appear larger.

Most cats growl or hiss when angered or in danger, which serves to warn the offending party. If the warning is not heeded, a more or less serious attack may follow. Some may engage in nipping behavior or batting with their paws, either with claws extended or retracted. With cats that are improperly socialized and do not know their own strength, this can result in inadvertent damage to human skin. Like any injury, cat scratches can become infected, and in extreme cases can result in cat scratch fever.

Some cats will snort (exhale sharply) after a determined effort to catch something has fallen short. Cats are also known to make chirping or chattering noises when observing prey, or as a means of expressing interest in an object to nearby humans. When directed at out-of-reach prey, it is unknown whether this is a threatening sound, an expression of excitement or frustration, or an attempt to replicate a bird-call (or replicate the call of a bird’s prey, for example a cicada).[citation needed]

While this behaviour was originally viewed as the feline equivalent of song, recent animal behaviorists have come to believe this noise is a “rehearsal behaviour” in which it anticipates or practises the killing of prey, because the sound usually accompanies a biting movement similar to the one they use to kill their prey (the “killing bite” which saws through the victim’s neck vertebrae).

A type of chirrup, the chudder[citation needed], is used as a greeting. Tigers also use this sound. Some cats may also grunt when given attention. The grunt appears to always be modulated with a purr, making it a kind of closed-mouth meow of affection. Contented sleeping cats make soft humming sounds, similar to sighs, when petted.

The cry of a cat in heat is called a caterwaul.

Cats in close contact with humans use vocalization more frequently than cats that live in the wild, the reason being that owners respond strongly to cat vocalizations, reinforcing the behavior. Adult cats in the wild rarely vocalize; they use mostly body language and scent to communicate.

Body language

A mackerel tabby cat kneading a blanket before a nap. Note the forward position of the whiskers, indicating happiness or curiosity.

A young black cat, showing relaxation and happiness.

Main article: Cat body language

Cats will twitch the tips of their tails when hunting or angry, while larger twitching indicates displeasure and they may also twitch their tails when playing. A tail held high is a sign of happiness, or can be used as a greeting towards humans or other cats (usually close relatives) while half-raised shows less pleasure, and unhappiness is indicated with a tail held low. A scared or surprised cat may puff up its tail, and the hair along its back may stand straight up and the cat turn its body sideways to a threat, in order to increase its apparent size[citation needed]. Tailless cats, such as the Manx, which possess only a small stub of a tail move the stub around as though they possessed a full tail, though it is not nearly as communicative as that of a fully tailed cat. Touching noses is a friendly greeting for cats, while a lowered head is a sign of submission. Some cats will rub their faces along their guardian’s cheek or ankles as a friendly greeting or sign of affection. This action is also sometimes a way of “marking their territory,” leaving a scent from the scent glands located in the cat’s cheek. More commonly, cats do something called a “head bonk,” or “bunting,” where they literally bump someone with the front part of their head to express affection.

A 13 year old Tortoiseshell Cat yawning

Cats also lick both each other and people (e.g. their owners). Cats lick each other to groom each other and to bond together (this grooming is usually done between cats that know each other very well). They will also sometimes lick people for similar reasons. These reasons include wanting to “groom” people and to show them care and affection. When cats are happy, they are known to paw their human companion, or a soft object on which they may be sitting, with a kneading motion also called “padding”, “pacing”, “sponging”, “paddling”, “happy clawing”, “making biscuits”, or “needle paws”. Cats often use this action alongside purring to show contentment and affection for their companions. Other times it can be when the cat is in pain or dying, as a method of comforting itself. It is instinctive to cats, who use it when they are young to stimulate the mother cat’s breast to release milk during nursing. As a result, cats hand-raised by humans may lack this reflex. Pawing is also a way for cats to mark their territory. The scent glands on the underside of their paws release small amounts of scent onto the person or object being pawed, marking it as “theirs” in the same way they would urinate to mark their territory.

Yawning in front of their companion and blinking behavior is common in cats and may be a sign of trust or affection. Some cats will respond to a human who dramatically yawns or closes and opens their eyes by reciprocating the action[citation needed]. Rolling over on its back and exposing its belly is also a sign of trust however this should not be mistaken with a similar defensive position. Other signs of trust include rubbing their body on one when the cat is happy or desires something, rubbing their paws on you, or sleeping on you, even when it is not their normal time to sleep (it means they feel comforted enough towards you that they want to sleep with you).

See also

Cat behavior

Cat pheromone

Dog communication




^ retrieved December 23, 2009

^ retrieved May 22, 2007

^ “Virtual Pet Behaviorist”. 

^ “How to Understand Cat Language (Animal Planet)”. 




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